Some too many days ago in a state far far away called Virginia ...
"Do you like them thar curvey roads?" the man behind the counter asked in a thick southern accent.
"Why yes, Sir. We certainly do." I replied wondering what kind of local roads we were about to discover.
"If you take a right down in Tazewell onto Route 16 it goes over three mountains and is real curvey and pretty. I think they call it that thar 'Back of the Dragon'."
We would have ridden right past it had he not mentioned it. The refrain of the day became "Do you like them curvey roads?"
We had been warned by many to watch out for gravel in corners. A couple of years ago my previous traveling companion had had an off on it due to gravel so we took the road fairly cautiously.
As almost everyone knows, Deals Gap, also called The Dragon, is my favorite road in the country followed closely by the Blue Ridge Parkway. This road, however, doesn't rate quite up there. While it's wonderfully twisty in sections as it climbs over the three mountains and is extremely scenic, it's a traveling road that connects the towns of Tazewell and Marion. The time that we rode it the road was clean. It was a good ride and as long as it's clean I would say worth the detour.
As is always the case, photos don't do the views justice.
I have to thank John for the inspiration to travel the way I had always wanted to travel. At this point, it had already been days since we had left but we were still in Virginia. I knew that later on in the trip the roads would not be nearly as good so we were taking our sweet time and checking out every one of "them thar curvey roads" that we could find.
I really should take 10 days some time and simply explore Virginia and West Virginia. I suspect there are many more roads to find.
At the summit of the last mountain we came across some BMW riders.
"Have you ridden route 80 yet?" the man asked. "No, Sir. Not yet."
"It's twistier than this one with a lot less traffic and no shoulders. It's 1 1/2 lanes wide. You should go check it out. It's just 20 miles South of here."
I suggested it to John. "We'll play now and make up mileage later." I told John and he agreed. "The roads in the Ozarks aren't quite as good as these so we should really take our time now."
I really appreciate Johns flexibility. We had to be in New Mexico on Thursday evening but that was still a number of days away so we had some time. It did mean we would have to have some moderately big days but the sacrifice was worth it.
Off to Route 80 we went.
This road is significantly twistier than route 16 and one could clearly see that it was much less traveled. There was significant gravel in every corner but it was easy to see and avoid.
"Roll on the throttle a bit as you're coming through the corner to stay on clean pavement." I told John through the Sena SMH10. There was a thin line of gravel along the center in each corner so staying on one side or the other of the lane kept you in clear pavement. Going from the outside to the inside of the corners meant crossing the line of gravel approaching the apex. It wasn't enough to be a problem but could be disconcerting. We were going pretty slowly. Looking back I noticed John was getting uncomfortable so I slowed it down even more. As we crested the mountain, the pavement changed to a lighter colored surface.
A car came around the corner just before a sharp steep left hander I announced, "Car." over the Sena. My memory of the details that happened next are a bit unclear.
I saw gravel on the outside of the corner so I stayed towards the center of the lane. I started turning in on what looked like clean pavement when suddenly the front wheel stepped out. Traction interrupted, my direction changed abruptly. There was no traction front or rear. I was sliding laterally.
It was like a lightning strike down my spine, my senses overloaded. It wasn't quite abject panic, but close.
"Fuck!" John heard over comms.
I was pretty sure I could save it. I was sliding a bit laterally but I still thought I had clean pavement ahead. I thought the tires would hook up. "I'll save it." I thought.
"Fuck!!" John heard.
The tires just wouldn't hook up. Into the deeper gravel I slid.
Then came that point where I knew that there was no saving it.
I have been riding on pavement for 29.5 years without an off. Today that changed.
I slid a bit further and suddently both wheels slid out from under me as I entered the really deep gravel. I let go of the bike and hit pavement. The wheels dug in and the bike flipped over into a ditch. I slid for some few feet and ended up with my back against the sharp point of a large rock.
"FUCK!!!! Serious gravel, be careful!"
Then there was quiet.
Adrenaline kicked in and I was standing before John arrived around the corner. I had the presence of mind to stop. I stood there and surveyed the scene as John rolled up.
My bike was shiny side down in a ditch. One saddle bag had come off. I looked at the rock that had been behind me. Gasoline was leaking onto the ground. I felt no pain and I was calm. There was no anger but I knew at that moment that now everything would be Different.
I thought the bike was likely beyond repair. John walked over and together we tried to lift it. It's much heavier than I remember. After a first attempt, I removed the tank bag to lighten it and we put the full force of our effort into lifting it as a group of harley riders rode up.
We managed to get the bike upright. To my surprise the handlebars looked more or less straight. I looked down the fork tubes and they seems straight as well.
"Do you need some help pushing it out of the ditch?" the Harley rider asked. I pondered for a second how many harley's I've help lift out of ditches. "I think I can ride it out." I replied as I started the engine. It fired up. "Good." I thought as I put it into gear and rode it out of the ditch and onto the shoulder.
"I've been down a few times. I blame it on stupidity." the Harley rider said. I looked over my poor bike. I had just gotten it all back together again and it had looked so pretty.
Now it's scarred.
I don't remember their names, but we thanked the Harley riders for stopping to lend a hand.
"Suddenly I just heard, 'Fuck' over the comms. I've never heard you curse before." John said. "Once I heard that I knew to go super slow."
"How many fucks did you hear?"
"Four fucks in seven seconds." he replied.
"That's a lot of fucks in seven seconds."
I've seen many offs in my time but I've never experienced one. I've seen offs wreck riders confidence.
I have very often thought about what it would do to me if I ever had an off. What would I feel?
I kept replaying what had happened. "We were going pretty slowly." John had said. Later he would tell me he was very uncomfortable with the road.
I still felt no pain but I knew that it was likely the result of adrenaline so I moved a bit cautiously. After many minutes I still felt no pain.
"It looks like the gear worked." I said to John.
I couldn't figure out how I could have missed gravel deep enough to cause a slide. What did I miss? What I initially remembered was t rhat I had gone a bit wide and maybe hit the gravel on the outside. We reviewed the video later that day and it shows me on what looks like clean pavement towards the center of the lane.
"Was I going too fast?" I would think. I was going slowly, probably not much over 25mph but, in retrospect, I should have been crawling expecting deep gravel.
"Arrogance?" I thought. "Overconfidence in my ability to respond to hazards?"
"Have I become a hazard? Does it now mean that I am not a danger on the bike?"
I chatted with John about it. He suggested vision starts to get worse with age and maybe that's why.
"Maybe I've gotten too old to do this anymore."
I still didn't feel any pain at all. There wasn't much evidenced of hitting pavement on my gear. The Transit Suit is dusty but not badly scuffed. My gloves do show that they did their job.
I suspect if I had not been wearing full gear I would have been moderately to seriously injured. I'm not sure how hard I had hit the rock that stopped my slide but without a decent back protector I would likely have fared much worse.
My poor bike.
I still felt no pain.
I checked over the bike. It seemed ok so we rode on. The instrument cluster is slightly tweaked and the handle bar is a bit more bent than before but otherwise the bike handles perfectly.
Strangely, I didn't feel too terribly tentative. "Let's get off this road." John said so we took the first left we could find and headed to points South West.
I kept going over the event as we were riding along. I just couldn't shake how I could have missed it. I swear it looked like clean pavement.
"It's going to be a while before I take a passenger again." I thought.
John and I rode on for many hours. My beloved blue oil burner continued to perform flawlessly. Thoughts of my off dominated my thinking and have for most of my trip.
"I should have been going even slower." I would think.
At one point, John suggested that we stop and take a look at a section of pavement that resembled the surface on which I offed.
This turned out to be very valuable. On the upper side of the white line you can clearly see gravel. What's not visible is that on the lower side of the white line which looks like good pavement is covered in a fine dust and a good amount of the aggregate is loose.
"We have good traction on this road but if it were to accumulate at all it would still look like clean pavement. I've never seen this kind of dust be deep enough to cause any drama."
Then again, I've never ridden these mountain roads in mid-April after a brutal winter.
We discussed relative risk for a while. I tell people that when you go to corner you have to scan the surface for hazards and then look to the apex and then up to the exit where you want to be as you leave the turn. What new riders do is they'll focus on the pavement in front of the tire scared about hazards in the road. This is actually vastly more dangerous because it makes riders go wide, which is one of the most common accidents.
"You have to trust that there will be traction. Even if traction is lost and you're looking to the exit leaned over, you'll low side. Compared to running wide and running into something face first, this is a much better option." I would say.
I've lost traction in a corner only twice before. Once as a teenager I hit wet leaves but managed to keep the bike upright. Another time, a few years ago I hit what must have been an oil slick, but again was able to recover. This is the first time I've completely lost traction and was not able to recover. However, there have been quite a number of times where there have been cars coming around blind corners in my lane or other hazards in my path where unquestioned belief in traction allowed me to avoid them with wide margins.
I'm not yet sure what the lesson is. "Go even slower." is not the right answer. Slow can also be dangerous. Maybe the lesson is "Beware the dust that covers them thar less travelled curvey roads in downhill sections in April."
I'm not sure. Maybe the lesson is that sometimes, there's simply no traction and it's not visible. I'm certain, in retrospect, if I had seen the dust and had not thought it was clean pavement that I would have been able to stop easily before my turn-in. I was going pretty slowly. It was a failure of recognition.
After a day or so I noticed that my right thumb was a bit sore. I guess I hyperextended it. I have a few scrape marks on the fingers of my left hand. There's a bruise on my right leg. That's it.
The gear worked and worked well.
I love my blue oil burner. Now it's scarred. Joel, John's son, has a mentioned a number of times that he'd like to find a bike that he loves as much as I love mine.
Looking at my poor scarred bike I found myself thinking, "The things that I love don't seem to fare so well for it ....."
It's serviceable. It just looks ugly now. At some point, before too long, I'll fix it and make it pretty again.